In Pakistan, artists reinvent contemporary art canon as galleries negotiate virtual experiences amid a pandemic
As Pakistan looks to reimpose a locality-based lockdown, what has the COVID-19 pandemic meant for the country’s art scene, which had put years of political mayhem and curbs on artistic freedom behind itself?
As industries and global markets come undone amid the raging coronavirus crisis, it becomes imperative to take a closer look at the art world — not to seek solace this once, but instead contemplate a future where galleries bear a deserted look, homegrown art initiatives are affected and artists struggle to stay afloat with not much in sight to tide them over.
Indeed, change has already been felt through the art world, most prominently with the cancellation of this year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong. Thereafter, scores of fairs and auctions around the world fell like dominoes, some of which now rest uneventfully in online databases. However, away from the allure of mega-galleries, there are countries which can no longer afford to be under lockdown but where art and artists present great potential. For Pakistan’s art community, weathering the past few months has been both a cultural awakening and an adversity. As the government looks to reintroduce locality-based lockdowns, what has the pandemic meant for the country’s art industry, known for consistently putting years of political mayhem and attempts to curb artistic freedom behind itself?
Negotiating a lockdown
Even as the Government of Sindh announced the lockdown on 23 March, gallerists had already braced themselves for the storm days before. Abid Aziz Merchant was to be at the SXSW Film Festival in Texas for the premiere of I’ll Meet You There, his co-production, on 10 March. With the festival called off, he was lucky to have his trip cancelled days before the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic. Soon after, the ripples of the crisis were beginning to permeate the art industry in Pakistan where Merchant’s Karachi-based Sanat Initiative — a platform for both emerging and established artists to demonstrate experimental streams of thought — was in the midst of an exhibition. Four days before the lockdown, Merchant decided to shut the physical space to serve their patrons virtually.
While the lockdown may have hastened the shift to digital viewing, it certainly ended up casting a shadow on the ongoing operations of many ventures. As promising as art seems in the virtual space, the move comes with serious implications and therefore, must be premeditated.
For Canvas Art Gallery, which has changed the landscape of contemporary art in the country since its inception in 1999, the lockdown posed both unique challenges — and ample time for reevaluation. Curator and founder of the gallery Sameera Raja says postponing the shows indefinitely has been her biggest worry. “We have an exhibition schedule lined up three years in advance, and so our artists had been working towards their shows as ‘physical’ presentations, to be displayed within the space. Therefore, [after the lockdown], they did not have the space or technology to turn them into virtual shows. Additionally, as most of them were based outside Karachi, their work could not reach the gallery for us to turn them into virtual shows either.”
Similarly in Murree, a resort town located in Pakistan’s Punjab province, June was to herald the beginning of this year’s edition of the Murree Museum Artist's Residency. However, despite being a summer tradition since 2014, the programme had to be postponed indefinitely, as the country began to record a rapid rise in the number of coronavirus cases, reveals founder of the residency and artist Saba Khan.
“I think it was a timely decision as Lahore is now fast becoming a COVID-19 hotspot and as a result, roads are closed intermittently on most days while hospitals are filled beyond their capacity.” For Khan, the pandemic has meant a year without the residency, even though for the past few years, she could sense a lurking ‘burnout’. However, she says her solace lies in being able to “have the summer for [her] own studio practice or explore other the northern areas with [her] children”, in addition to her involvement in the Pak Khawateen Painting Club — a collective she formed last year where “a group of ‘good girls’ investigate ecologically distressed sites or structures of water”.
Despite sending shockwaves through the economy, for several artists, the lockdown presented a fortuitous opportunity to meditate on notions they had faithfully followed so far. For instance, the lockdown-induced isolation led Lahore-based art director Eemaan Bano Rahman to recast her perception of the ‘veil’, a theme she frequently explores. “I have always been fascinated by the veil’s ability to protect the subject from an audience, as well as its capacity to preserve the spectacle it creates. As the idea of retreating from the public sphere became a stronger realisation, I was drawn to the multifaceted nature of the veil. In pre- Coronavirus days, my art was a confrontation and mockery of man. But it has now developed into a non-gender debate since this is our life now — as we live with our masks on, limit interaction, and isolate ourselves from one another.”
In Rahman's recent works, there is a conspicuous treatment of ‘brokenness’. It can be interpreted as a barrier between the spectator and the subject, or as she puts it: “a certain crack in the system”.
Looking to a virtual future
Although art dealings across the globe may have been back-burnered, the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak has also held out a silver lining to the industry in the form of greater access to social media. This change was most solemnised when Art Basel debuted its Hong Kong edition online, with the world on the road to containment. Gradually seeping into other geographies, the enthusiasm to restage art on virtual platforms, although sparked by frozen mobility and art spaces being rendered off limits, has also brought on several individual and organisational modifications within Pakistan’s art community.
“I started sharing images of the artwork from my private collection with our followers. It was something that I had thought about a few years ago — inviting art enthusiasts to collectors’ homes. But this lockdown gave me an opportunity to bring a collector’s home to the art enthusiasts, albeit virtually on Instagram,” says Merchant.
From an organisational perspective, moving art online will continue being a laborious task, but not one without rewards. “An online exhibition will ensure that people aren’t intimidated from buying art. It will increase the clientele base and we know that collecting can become very addictive; if the first experience of online buying goes well, it will lead to more buys,” adds Ambereen Karamat, critic and founder of Pakistan’s first art consultancy, White Turban. Therefore, while art acquisition may still be considered a luxury, even more so in view of the havoc wreaked by pandemic, “a small percentage of people who won’t be adversely affected will continue building their collections”.
Even though virtual viewing rooms are expected to multiply in the foreseeable future, buying and selling art is an exercise which will mostly need to be facilitated physically, gallerists say. To negotiate that, Canvas Gallery has begun public visits via appointments with the lockdown easing in certain parts of Pakistan, with a single person being allowed inside the premises at a time.
However, while virtual art engagement may become the norm in developed nations, for South Asian countries, the move may not be as rewarding. Envisaging virtual residencies in Pakistan in an age of gentrification and privatisation, Khan notes, “They could work in worlds that have established art institutions and saturated art worlds. However, for us, there is already a dearth of public space or any space to congregate in. Our unstructured art world and lack of institutions cannot be replaced or mitigated by the virtual world. The virtual may also exacerbate the problem where the majority with slow internet or broken smartphones may be shut out.”
Rebuilding the art world
According to consultants and critics, Pakistan’s art market has always been “fragile” and unable to sustain the 200-odd artists produced each year from leading schools. Hence, factoring in the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis in the country results in a bleak picture for the arts sector. “Our industry works on some unique dynamics: our local collector base is small, the few galleries we have often show the same artists repeatedly, and a lot of talent goes unnoticed. Some artists are turning to social media and selling their works through private sales. This practice does bring in the cash but stagnates artistic practice,” Karamat weighs in.
Reflecting on the state of commercial activity in the past few months, Merchant deems the current scenario “much worse” than The Great Recession; his claim confirmed by a Financial Times report, indicating art sales have fallen by 97 percent at the world’s most coveted auction houses.
However, despite the tribulations of living in a present rife with a virus outbreak, economic setbacks, and immense losses, initiatives such as the Prints for Pandemic Relief (PfPR), serve as a reminder of the task at hand. Headed by Seyhr Qayum, Zuneera Shah and Naeha Rashid, the fundraiser was created to aid vulnerable communities in Pakistan through the sale of photographs, paintings and digital art. Working across time zones, the three had the website running with featured works from over 50 contemporary artists in a matter of days. The efforts seemed to pay off when the first few orders were placed within 30 minutes of the launch.
In less than a month, PfPR was able to raise over PKR 4,472,219 for their six relief partners – including Karachi Bachao Tehreek which is providing rent relief to prevent daily wage labourers from being evicted [by landlords], and the Corona Solidarity Campaign, designed to assist Katchi Abadi (irregular settlement) residents around Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
As the art industry waits for the dust to settle before evaluating the course of action in a world debilitated by the coronavirus crisis, Qayum offers an important insight on the country’s artists: “Our creative community is dynamic, quick to adapt, and deeply socially conscious. At a time when artists world over are grappling with what the ‘art world’ will look like in the future, I believe that art in Pakistan will continue to evolve in a more collaboration-centric, community-driven manner.”
Khan, who has observed the country’s art sector through multiple shifts and ruptures, adds, “While we don’t find any initiatives to provide monetary support to young artists during the pandemic, art colleges are already thriving spaces where artists have traditionally been practicing and teaching simultaneously, which has primarily kept the arts alive through tyranny and peace.”
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